This is a follow up to a CHP story published about the closing of the Benchlands encampment on Oct. 29.
Winding up an isolated road through the De Laveaga golf course, down a smaller fork, through a gated, barbed wire fence, and behind the National Guard Armory, is the Golflands, Santa Cruz county’s replacement for the Benchlands houseless encampment.
Jeremy Leonard, former assistant manager for the temporary encampment at the Benchlands, which closed on Nov. 15, said he and the rest of his staff moved over to the new location without any fundamental changes to their operations. Leonard said the name “Golflands” emerged as a continuation of the camp’s previous name.
The city closed the Benchlands because it sat on top of a floodplain, which meant that during the rainy season, it would lose Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding necessary for it to operate. The move took place over a three day period starting on Friday, Nov. 13, during which residents and their belongings were shuttled from the Benchlands camp along the San Lorenzo river to the new location.
“We had a few extra county employees come down and drive a van and move some things around and help with logistics,” Leonard said. “And we had a lot of other [help] from the Watsonville shelter. […] So we had extra hands, but it was still an incredible amount of work to move 50 people and their lives and get them here successfully.”
The new camp is isolated from outside resources and the rest of the houseless community downtown. The Golflands camp also bars residents from leaving unless it’s in one of their provided shuttles, due in part to the shoulderless, winding road that is the only way in and out of the camp.
“We promised the neighborhood when we extended the armory site [as an option], that we would run shuttles,” said Jason Hoppin, a spokesman for the county. “But to the extent that there are rules attached to the facility, that will reduce the number of people that access the facility, [and] we are trying to mitigate that.”
The shuttles run once an hour every hour, starting at 7 a.m. and ending at 7 p.m. At the old Benchlands camp, residents could leave and re-enter at their own discretion.
Leonard said the moving out process is still ongoing. The original camp had around 70 tents with residents, and the new camp has 50 tents at time of press. Leonard said some previous Benchlands residents have not made it up to the new camp because they found accommodations at non-county-run camps or found housing, and others have chosen to remain at the Benchlands. However there is capacity at the Golflands site to accommodate more residents.
The new site is a similar set up to the original, but with higher grade tents, sleeping pads, and gravel as weatherproofing to stop buildup of mud. Elizabeth Smith, a representative for the City Manager’s Office, said they were able to make these purchases with Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding.
“Basically the managed camp is the result of the county and the city, focusing on following the CDC guidelines as it relates to unsheltered populations, and so the [camp] funding is going to come from the federal government relief funds,” said Smith.
The chain link fence surrounding the original Benchlands camp is still up, its portapotties still standing, and some tents inside still pitched. The only new additions are the piles of garbage and abandoned belongings near the old camp’s entrance.
Cody Lewis and Mia*, two Benchlands residents who are still residing in the remnants of the camp, describe the moving out process as hectic and poorly communicated. No printed notification was provided to residents indicating that a move would happen.
The two of them had difficulties signing up to get placed on a shuttle, due to lack of clarity. They were told by county staff they needed to sign a document indicating they would like to go to the new camp and were both told they had secured a spot spot, even though neither of them had any recollection of actually signing a document.
“[Camp staff] went from being overly explanatory and very reassuring, ‘yeah, you’re gonna be good,’” said Lewis, “to using the phrasing, ‘the cops are going to be here to kick you out.’”
Neither Lewis, Mia, or any camp residents claimed to have seen police officers at the camp with the intention of clearing out residents.
City and county representatives both indicated that the new camp is slated to run until sometime in the spring, though no precise end date for the Golflands has been determined. It is unclear at the moment if the county has any plans for a permanent or more long-term encampment.
“It’s just like Band-Aids and Band-Aids and Band-Aids,” Lewis said. “You know, this is the fourth time I’ve sat in San Lorenzo Park with the fence up, and I’m saying I know there’s gonna be a fifth and a sixth time, and that’s ridiculous. All the money spent on the first four times could have had a building up somewhere already, you know?”
*Source requested their last name be omitted to protect their privacy.